Bioversity International: research for development in agricultural and tree biodiversity

It's time to politicize tree seed

16 Dec 2016

Every single forest and landscape restoration project requires two physical resources: land and seed. 

Land issues – including those that are socio-economic or political in nature – have become deeply embedded in the principles on restoration planning, after criticism against some reforestation projects which reportedly resulted in displacing local communities. For example, the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) calls for establishing spatial planning processes for integrated land management, reviewing legal and policy frameworks for land tenure and recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities in planning ecosystem restoration.

What about seed? The production, selection and acquisition of tree seed and other propagation materials remain considered as primarily technical issues in international discourse about restoration. Hence, they receive little - if any - attention in high-level planning and policy processes, despite the immense and urgent requirement for tree seed if we are to meet the global restoration commitments of hundreds of millions of hectares in the next 5-15 years. 

People’s preferences for tree species are deeply cultural and gendered, with important implications to the food security and livelihoods of rural men, women and children. The origin and genetic diversity of seed largely determine productivity and resistance of the newly established trees and their ability to survive and continue to provide – in a changing climate – the crucial ecosystem services that support agriculture and other land uses.

Limited attention to tree seed supply systems in policy and planning deprives the beneficiaries of restoration – the resource-poor farmers and forest dwellers who are also the ones most affected by land degradation – of access to options when it comes to species choice and quality of material. It also deprives rural people of income and employment opportunities that seed sourcing, seed production and tree propagation can bring if linked to well-functioning seed markets.

Smaller projects, and those that provide tangible livelihood benefits to local communities, are more sustainable and successful in meeting their objectives than large top-down projects, recent studies show. Such evidence calls for more diverse, decentralized and contextualized approaches to restoration, implemented in partnership with the ultimate beneficiaries of restoration.

Such decentralized approaches demand more from tree seed systems than centrally-led and implemented initiatives because of the need to tailor approaches to diverse contexts. Deforestation, forest degradation and climate change add to the complications: in the landscapes most in need of restoration, local seed sources may not be available or may be too small to produce viable seed – and will likely not contain sufficient genetic diversity to adapt and survive under rapidly changing environment. To truly succeed in restoring forests and landscapes, we must get the seed moving around, match seed sources and seed providers with those who need that diversity in specific projects.

The persistent difficulties in extending the supply of agricultural inputs – including crop seed – to remote villages in developing countries illustrates the challenges in developing functional tree seed systems that meet the farmers’ needs. At the same time, the neglect of seed in forest and landscape restoration discourse is in stark contrast with the situation in agriculture, where research on seed systems – the ways farmers acquire, select and exchange crop seed, and their intellectual property rights – is of ever growing importance. 

In line with the CBD call for ‘reviewing, improving or establishing’ land tenure and spatial planning approaches in restoration, it is time to review, improve and establish tree seed systems. The Aichi Targets 14 and 15 on restoring degraded ecosystems and ecosystem services for the poor and vulnerable cannot be met without this.

The blogs published in this series by Bioversity International scientists over the past one month have illustrated key issues in integrating tree seed considerations in restoration planning, and the research results, approaches and tools that are available to support the process.

What is the situation of tree seed systems in your country? What should be done to help improve it? Please get in touch to share your thoughts and start a movement on tree seed systems.

By Riina Jalonen, Associate Scientist, Conservation and Use of Forest Genetic Resources, Bioversity International

Photo: Tree restoration in Colombia. Credit: Bioversity International/E. Thomas

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